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Manitoba's million-dollar numbers game

Population a political football

What's in a number?

Well, if it's Manitoba's population, quite a bit. In fact, tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars over the next five years in federal transfer payments.

Manitoba Finance Minister Jennifer Howard, getting ready to introduce her first provincial budget on Thursday, has been telling anyone and everyone the province is getting royally screwed by Ottawa on its population estimates.

In short, Statistics Canada came up with a population 18,000 people fewer than Manitoba thinks it should be. That adds up to millions in per capita transfer payments. In the current fiscal year, the province has lost $37 million, and estimates it could lose up to $500 million over the next five years.

Critics of the NDP government, including Heritage Minister Shelly Glover, Manitoba's senior Tory MP, claim Howard is looking for any excuse to cover up her own fiscal incompetence.

Is this the last gasp of a desperate government? Or is this a real issue putting more pressure on an already strained provincial budget?

In order to understand the issue at stake, some basic questions need to be answered.

  • How do you calculate population? Statistics Canada uses census data every five years as a baseline for population. In between censuses, it does annual population estimates.

 

  • Was the census flawed? Both sides agreed the census functioned perfectly well, and the return rate in Manitoba was very good.

The issue is not the census itself, but rather the process of estimating the number of people who were not counted in it.

A census misses people who died, or were just born. Or people who do not have a steady address. Or were in the process of moving from one province to another at census time.

StatsCan accounts for these people through a Reverse Records Check (RRC), where real people are identified randomly and then tracked back to see if they filled out census forms. The RRC results are used to adjust the final population figure.

 

  • Where did things go wrong? In April 2013, Statistics Canada reported a troubling variation between the census estimate and the RRC estimate. StatsCan found the two estimates had the largest variation ever recorded. And so it was Statistics Canada, not Manitoba, that raised the red flag.

In an August 2013 report, Statistics Canada stated a "random error" in the population estimates had "a significant impact" on the province. StatsCan and Manitoba went on to do extensive analysis to investigate the anomaly.

After months of review, StatsCan could not find a salient explanation. As a result, it said there was no "scientific basis" to adjust Manitoba's population.

In his own research, Manitoba chief statistician Wilf Falk continued to identify more evidence of an anomaly. Falk looked at the number of Manitobans filing tax returns. Although not an accurate way of estimating population, statisticians do look closely at the percentage increases in tax filers because, historically, they have increased at roughly the same rate as population.

For example, between the 2001 and 2006 censuses, there was a 2.91 per cent increase in tax filers, and a 2.79 per cent increase in estimated population, small enough to be negligible.

Between 2006 and 2011 censuses, however, tax filers went up by 6.41 per cent, while StatsCan estimated population growth of only 4.24 per cent. Falk argued this is yet another indication that something went horribly wrong in the 2011 population estimates.

StatsCan has closed the book on the 2011 population estimates and refused to make any adjustments.

 

  • How did this become so political? From the moment Howard raised this issue, it was seized upon by federal and provincial Tories as a desperate bid to divert attention from the NDP government's inability to balance the books.

Glover's involvement was particularly intriguing. Unsolicited, she called Free Press reporter Bruce Owen to complain about Howard's continued whining about population estimates. "Once again, here we have the province making false statements," Glover said.

Apparently, Glover was unaware Statistics Canada's own analysis identified the "sampling error" in the estimate of Manitoba's population. And that it had a "significant" impact on the final provincial population figures.

Perhaps Glover was unaware of her own agency's conclusions because Statistics Canada was not very forthcoming about how it, and not Manitoba, first identified the error.

In an article submitted to the Free Press, Statistics Canada's chief statistician Wayne Smith accused Falk of making false claims about the population estimates. "Contrary to what was stated by the chief statistician of Manitoba regarding evidence of a biased sample for the census coverage study, no evidence of error in terms of a biased sample was found," Smith wrote in his op-ed.

Smith was correct in that StatsCan was not able to find a bias in the random sample. However, he somehow failed to mention that an anomaly remains in the final population numbers.

  • Conclusion? Manitoba was correct to raise a concern about the population estimates. We know that because Statistics Canada raised the concern first.

In the end, however, it's unlikely Manitoba will get much traction. The population figures will not change, and Manitoba will see its transfer payments ratcheted down as a result. If Howard continues to complain, she will face chants of "whiner, whiner."

What's in a number? Possibly the future of Manitoba's NDP government.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

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